Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Jonah is a child soldier. Not even half-grown, he's already a dead-eyed killer of shocking efficiency. His short but bloody life has taught him to hate the death-dealing technology of weapon-mongers, but through rather complicated circumstances he ends up in the employ of Koko Hekmatyar, weapons dealer extraordinaire. Koko is quite possibly mad, but she's also a hell of a businesswoman and the crackerjack commander of a small but skilled army of mercenaries. She needs to be. Her life is basically one long run of blood and death as enemy after enemy comes, seeking either her fortune or her life. Jonah may not think it, but he might just have found his place in life.
The Jormungand questionnaire: How to tell if Jormungand is the show for you. Do your eyes dry out unless they're lubricated weekly with at least five gallons of cinematic blood? Do you root for the bad guys when the heroes get all earnest and preachy? Are you sick to your twisted guts with shows that think you need a moral handle to hold onto in order to enjoy exploding heads? Answer yes to any one of those questions, and Jormungand is your baby. Like its crew of gunrunning mercenaries, it's fast, vicious and amoral—perfect for a night out with your mommy.
Jormungand makes no bones about its intentions. No pretense, no excuses: just full-throttle violence delivered with a kind of matter-of-fact ruthlessness. This is the kind of show whose first episode has not one but two sets of machine-gun fodder who barely rate names. It kicks off with a running freeway firefight, complete with anti-tank missiles and armored Humvees full of ski-masked special forces, and ends when some low-rent scumbag competitor tries to muscle in on Koko's territory, forcing her to devise a counter-strategy that mostly involves killing everyone in sight. The next episode has Koko's crew contending with both an overeager customer and a long-time competitor with his own crew of killers. Even what passes for an introspective episode gets going with an attempted murder in the urinals and hinges on a flashback during which Jonah butchers his own unit.
The series really hits its stride, though, when it stretches out for two-episode runs of death and destruction. There the series has the space to establish its antagonists, delve a little into its ensemble cast, and arrange long, spectacular action set-pieces. The series is at its very best in the first such run, which finds Koko entering the sights of a flashy pair of assassins. The assassins—a thoroughly insane, pointy-toothed juggernaut and his supernaturally cautious, perpetually pantiless teenaged sidekick—are great; the central set-piece is a free-form showdown that has both sides blasting their way from a shopping mall, through a police barricade, and along a blood-soaked boardwalk with an assortment of weapons and artillery; and the ending is a bitter jolt of fatalistic pessimism. The second such run is a little tamer, highlighting Koko's strategic smarts as she and her crew track an errant scientist while wriggling free of a Chinese gun merchant and his lethal secretary.
This is dirty, nasty stuff. The main characters are killers who make their living spreading chaos and death across the world. Their customers are no better, and their enemies no worse. The series trusts us to root for them, not because we agree with them or even like them, but simply because they're the main characters. The show rarely takes a stance one way or the other on what they do; it just presents it as is, in all its bloody, amoral, exhilarating glory. That's not a criticism. It's refreshing to see an anime series that understands that action can be enjoyed even as it disturbs, and that leaves the moral and philosophical arguments for us to have after it has run its bloody course.
The show is a curiously ensemble-oriented effort for a series of its type. For all the murderous skill of Koko's team members, their missions depend more on teamwork and coordination (and Koko's strategies) than on grandstanding action heroism. The action is less about proud iconoclasts living life on their own terms than it is about professionals working together to practice their professions. (In film-nerd terms, it's more Howard Hawks than Sam Peckinpah.) As such no one really hogs the spotlight—discounting Koko and maybe Jonah. Naturally some emerge stronger than others, specifically veteran sniper Lehm and one-eyed close-combat specialist Valmet, but even the members whose names we'll probably never learn have their own personalities and roles to play.
Jormungand strives for realism in its look. Koko's world is all washed-out colors and detailed modern settings and anally accurate military hardware. Characters too trend towards the realistic side of the spectrum, with mostly plausible hair, dress and coloration. There are enough odd visual choices though to make the character designs an acquired taste. At the top of the list are Koko and Jonah's bushy blonde lashes, characters' flat, crazy eyes, the serpentine smiles of the female cast, and, especially, the plain, sometimes borderline shoddy way everyone looks in profile. The series' habit of using black raccoon eyes to signal comic anger is also rather off-putting at first. Eventually though you get used to it all, and in some cases—those crazy eyes and smiles—learn to appreciate it too.
All of which is a little moot in the end. In a series like Jormungand all that really matters is the action. And the action is good. The action set-pieces rely more on imagery and editing than raw animation, and readily sacrifice artistic consistency—especially in faces and bodies—for impact and freedom of movement, but they look pretty great regardless. Director Keitaro Motonaga has spent a good deal of his career animating terrible romances, but he's got action experience as well and it shows in his sharp timing and eye for violence. His action sequences move at lightning speed and hit with sickening force when asked to, but can also be emotionally charged (though generally the emotion is insane rage) and beautiful in a terrible, gory, fiery kind of way. When one character stops to admire how a grenade propped a burning car on its end, you can understand why.
Chalk another winner up to Taku Iwasaki. His score adds a note of class to a series that's pretty much of a mad dog otherwise. Whether electric blues or simple ethnic strings, it sounds good and adds depth to whatever's going on. Like a good score should. Not the very best that Iwasaki has devised, but still better than many a lesser composers' best.
Possibly the biggest problem in adult-oriented action anime is shows that try too hard. That push their objectionable content until it's just sadistic, that layer on the tough-guy posturing until it's patently phony, that ruin good lean action set-ups with unnecessary intellectual or philosophical baggage. So the most worrying thing that Jormungand does here is give voice to Jonah's love-hate relationship with weaponry. A couple of times it gets dangerously close to qualifying as a message. That would be disastrous. Nothing spoils good dirty fun like a message. For now, though, it remains unadulterated dirty fun, at a breakneck pace. May it sustain both for as long as it runs.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Nonstop action that is nasty, violent, and blessedly free of moral or philosophical baggage; interesting focus on teamwork and professionalism.
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